In his insightful Wall Street Journal review of “Rin Tin Tin” by Susan Orlean, Scott Eyman mentions the “sense of loss that permeates” the book. The sense of loss that Mr. Eyman describes is, I believe, a hallmark of memoirs about beloved dogs.
A poignant example is a memoir of the American Civil War by Col. Richard Coulter, commanding officer of the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. In 1867 Col. Coulter wrote about the loyalty of the regiment’s canine mascot, a bull terrier named Sallie Ann Jarrett. “Soldier Sallie,” as the men often called her, had faithfully followed the regiment from May 1861 until almost the end of the war. At Gettysburg she guarded her wounded and dead companions on the battlefield for five days, refusing to leave them.
Col. Coulter reminisced about Sallie sharing the soldiers’ hardships and earning their admiration and affection. But there too, along with the praise, is the inevitable loss–not only the loss of Sallie’s companionship but a deeper, existential loss, and it is with this loss that Col. Coulter ended his tribute. Sallie was killed in February 1865 in the fighting at Hatcher’s Run in Virginia. Col. Coulter’s memoir laments that “There is nothing now to mark the spot where she fell, no stone or tablet to her memory . . . ” That omission he and his men would later correct, though not at Hatcher’s Run but at Gettysburg. His final lines quote Byron’s epitaph for his dog Boatswain, which observes that history gloriously honors men not as they were “but [as] they should have been,” while “the poor dog, in life the firmest friend, whose honest heart is still his master’s own . . . unhonor’d falls, unnoticed all his worth, Denied in Heaven the soul he held on Earth . . . .”